Saturday, March 5, 2011

Saturday's Best Book Diary: Of Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Time

"Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it. " --Terry Pratchett.

I'm not a bit surprised that most of the known universe is darkness--dark matter and dark energy--and that it's still a mystery to us.  Yet I've enjoyed reading about it in two new books, Richard Panek's The 4 Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality and Brian Greene's The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.

Both authors are scientists but have devoted their time to writing about science, and I'm glad they have.  Richard Penek is the less technical of the two, coming up with quasi-literary metaphors at will, it seems, and drawing out human interest stories to give the lay reader a stake in the narrative.

Greene's previous books are Icarus at the Edge of Time, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality, and The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory.

Great titles, right?  Even more impressive are some of his chapter titles.  For instance:  "Endless Doppelgangers: The Quilted Universe" and "Black Holes and Holograms: The Holographic Multiverse."  I've read all of these books and all of these chapters, and although I may be no closer to the answers then I was before, I can still muse over some of the entertaining theories.

Richard Panek uses this simple quote from Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time as his epigraph:

"I know," said Nick.
"You don't know," said his father.

Looking back, the degree to which the ancient Greeks have been proven right is amazing, yet the older we get, the more we realize how fast and how far we have come, in our time.

"Science historians note that before Thomas Edison, light and fire were the same thing; after Edison they were separate.  The same can be said of time and place."

"Before the railroads created Standard Time zones in 1883, and international time zones were adopted the next year, time and place were one." --Howard Mansfield, Turn and Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart.

Mansfield's charming and intelligent book of essays was published last year and it is about the different ways we have experienced time and place and how quickly our understanding of these concepts has changed.  This was my first book by Mansfield but it won't be the last.  I've now sent for his The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age.

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